- Finance Capitalism and the Creeping London of Howards End and Tono-Bungay
To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. Of Pan and the elemental forces, the public has heard a little too much—they seem Victorian, while London is Georgian—and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.—E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)1
In The Country and City (1973), Raymond Williams notes the peculiar slowness with which British literature came to appreciate the urban: “[E]ven after society was predominantly urban its literature, for a generation, was still predominantly rural.”2 As the passage foregoing from Howards End suggests, the generation for whom British literature came to embrace London is that of E. M. Forster and H. G. Wells. Published within a year of each other, Forster’s Howards End and Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909) read like sibling foils. They both take the “fashionable” turn toward London identified by Forster as the motivation for their plots, and reading these two novels together provides an opportunity to explore why British literature at this particular historical moment becomes urbanized. The passage from Howards End attributes the turn toward London to popular opinion—“the public has heard a little too much” about the country and is ready to embrace the city. However, the novel as a whole makes a much more compelling argument about why the reading public may find itself more interested in London than in times past. If Howards End and Tono-Bungay share a fascination with London’s growing influence in popular [End Page 447] opinion and literary production, they also share a common explanation for why London is enjoying this newfound attention: namely, finance capitalism.
Tono-Bungay, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a financial empire, explicitly links the cultural turn toward London to finance capitalism. But this nexus is less apparent in Forster’s novel. It becomes clear that Howards End is also a novel about finance only when read through the lens of Giovanni Arrighi’s groundbreaking theory of finance capitalism, The Long Twentieth Century (1994). Literary scholars who have made use of Arrighi’s work tend to do so by exploring how financial modes of producing value differ from modes of value production under industrial capitalism—finance capital is more abstract, free-floating, and volatile—and how that kind of value production may find its cultural corollaries in art, literature, and epistemology.3 Like these scholars, Tono-Bungay’s interest in finance capitalism is focused on the peculiar means by which value accumulates (or does not accumulate) through financial modes of value production, and for this reason the link between London and finance capital is readily apparent in that novel. However, in Arrighi’s theory, finance capitalism is more than a form of value production; it is a multidimensional historical process. Arrighi’s theory, then, offers a new framework for historicizing cultural production and provides a means of understanding how Howards End can also be read as a novel about finance capitalism.
Taken together, these novels, because they are both about a historical shift in popular and literary attitudes toward London and about the historical processes of finance capitalism, further invite an investigation into the relationship among London, finance capitalism, and the formal experimentation that characterizes modernist literature. Appearing just a few years before the heady days of what we tend to call modernism proper—when, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “the smashing and crashing” of conventional forms began in earnest4—Howards End and Tono-Bungay have long been recognized as transitional novels between the Victorian and modernist periods.5 In terms of structure, both novels are rather conservative and Victorian, but, as I will discuss, they both articulate an awareness of how conventional novelistic poetics are no longer adequate to the modern world they seek to represent.
Whether Howards End and Tono-Bungay should be considered modernist novels is not at stake in...